The inhabitants of Hinkley, California, won a million-dollar lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) in 1996—and in 2000 their case impacted the entire world through a film starring Julia Roberts. However, the city of ‘Erin Brockovich‘ continues to fight for clean water to this day.
In the town of Hinkley, in the Californian Mojave desert (northwest of Los Angeles), there are fewer than 2,000 people who every day worry about learning how to eliminate chemical pollution from their lands and waters. Issues that need to be resolved for survival, rather than curiosity.
In 1996, more than 630 plaintiffs (representing about 30% of Hinkley residents at the time) won the famous lawsuit against PG&E with the help of Erin Brockovich, a smart single mother and employee of a Los Angeles law firm.
The utility company was found responsible for dumping hexavalent chromium (also known as chromium-6 ), a carcinogenic element used to suppress rust formation at the Hinkley gas compressor station, into an unlined pond in the 1950s and 60s.
The chemical leaked into the city’s groundwater and severely harmed the population. PG&E covered up the crisis and misled the community about the effects of chromium and its possible connection to the city’s health problems.
At the time it was settled, the Hinkley case was the largest payment ever awarded for such a lawsuit, and it served as an inspiration for environmental advocates around the world. The story became an Oscar-winning film starring Julia Roberts: Erin Brockovich (2000).
However, an investigation published on the investigative journalism portal Grist, revealed that unfortunately today the inhabitants of the toxic city continue to struggle to live in a healthy environment.
What happened after Erin Brockovich?
All that’s left in town today are a few clusters of houses, a junkyard, a community center, a dairy, and the infamous PG&E station that connects to the vast natural gas pipeline system, says Max Genecov in Grist. In the last decades Hinkley has been losing population; Hundreds of inhabitants have left this town. Many people have decided to sell everything and leave. According to Vice, the company has acquired more than two-thirds of all Hinkley’s properties in recent years.
The brave who have decided to stay are using methods to reduce pollution in the area. By planting alfalfa and other herbs, hexavalent chromium can be converted to chromium-3, a much less harmful variety.
Despite 25 years, PG&E has not yet developed a definitive plan to fully decontaminate groundwater. A 2014 PG&E feasibility study found that removing nearly all of the chromium from some of the worst affected areas could take between 11 and 50 years.
In 2015, the local water board ordered PG&E to clean up and decrease the chromium (because the amounts had continued to grow). The document warns that 80% of the cleanup should be completed by 2032.
Who is Erin Brockovich and what is she doing today?
At 60 years of age and still with many millions won in lawsuits, Brockovich does not lower her guard and continues to work on the usual cause: water pollution.
Her latest book, Superman’s Not Coming, recounts her experience, which she sums up like this: “‘Erin Brockovich something’ has become synonymous with investigating and then advocating for a cause without giving up.”
After the film’s release, she was already working on another contaminated groundwater case in the Latino farming community of Kettleman City, also in California. In 2005 she founded her own company, Erin Brockovich Consulting. Receive emails from people everywhere with cases. She marks them on a digital map to keep track of how water pollution affects the health of different communities.